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Council committee: Wetlands amendment bad idea

GREENFIELD — Before the five-member Town Council Appointments and Ordinances Committee took its vote Monday night to remove an amendment it had added last week to the town’s wetlands rules, which would have put power in the full council’s hands to essentially approve a wetlands ordinance waiver for large and small projects, it heard from a Conservation Commission member who wasn’t happy with the wording or perceived intention of that amendment.

Commission member John Blasiak said the amendment the committee made was poorly worded, would have had unintended consequences, and blurred the lines between the town’s executive and legislative branches. Committee members are Precinct 1 Councilor Marian Kelner, Precinct 5 Councilor David Singer, Precinct 6 Councilor Hillary Hoffman, Precinct 7 Councilor Karen Shapiro Miller and At-large Councilor Alfred Siano.

The committee added wording to the waiver section of the town’s wetlands ordinance which would have sent any project needing a waiver to the full Council for a two-thirds vote for approval based on its definition of “overriding public interest.”

Blasiak said he was amazed to see the committee insert such “poorly chosen words” into the town’s wetlands rules.

He said according to the wording, the commission could have decided that a project was worthy of a waiver, but its decision could have been overturned because it would then take a two-thirds vote of the council to determine whether that project had “overriding public interest.”

In a situation like that, a Council vote could have then not allowed what the commission had already deemed worthy of a waiver and could possibly block a project.

He said the Council committee was willing to insert itself into the wetlands process, but didn’t define “overriding public interest,” so left it up to interpretation.

“The waiver language needs to be coherent and workable,” said Blasiak, who said the amendment was an insult to the commission.

Singer later in the meeting said he took offense at Blasiak using the word “insult,” because that was never the committee’s intention.

Mayor William Martin said injecting the Council into a wetlands decision would make decisions political.

The entire committee took offense at the mayor’s comment.

Singer said the amendment was just a “bookmark,” though he didn’t define what that meant, which was simply to be discussed at a public hearing, not written in stone.

Hoffman said her intention was not to politicize decisions about waivers, but rather democratize them.

“The Conservation Commission is empowered by the state with certain powers and responsibilities,” said Blasiak. “The Town Council is not empowered by the state to deal with wetland issues.”

Blasiak said the Council is supposed to establish ordinances, not execute them.

“If you go beyond establishing an ordinance to actually executing one, it really blurs the distinction between the roles of two bodies — the executive and the legislative,” said Blasiak. “If the Town Council were allowed to negate anything in the town’s (wetlands) ordinance, why have a Con Com?”

In the end, though it was four of the same five members — Council President Mark Wisnewski sat in for Siano — who wrote the amendment into the waiver part of the ordinance, they all voted to take it back out.

When residents or other town board members questioned the five councilors, some of them put the blame on others, including Conservation Commission Chairman Alex Haro, for the committee including the waiver amendment.

Singer said it was because no one could define “overriding public interest” and that Haro had said he’d prefer the Council make that decision that the committee decided to include it.

“There was no insidious reason for it,” said Singer. “We threw it in as a bookmark.”

Hoffman said the suggestion to have the Council take a two-thirds vote to determine “overriding public interest” was not a power grab, as some perceived it to be.

“It was to provide coverage to the Con Com,” she said.

Hoffman said it was to help “take the heat off” an appointed board and put it with an elected board that would have to answer to its constituents.

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